An Honest Assessment

We all need people who keep us honest; those who can celebrate our wins, but are also able to point out our blind spots. I’m lucky enough to have a few people who sincerely do this for me. Recently, Dr. Kripa Sundar very kindly pointed out one such blind spot in my writing about retrieval practice. It went something like this…although, I’m paraphrasing and I’m very sure she said it in a much more ‘constructive criticism’ sort of way:

“Blake, you write a lot about retrieval practice, but teachers can’t spend the entire class period retrieving information. How do they know what information to cover during retrieval practice?

Again, she didn’t really say those exact words…but that’s what I heard and it got me thinking about the criteria I use when deciding what to include during reviews and formative assessment using retrieval practice. Teachers know that one of the most valuable resources in the classroom is time. It is incredibly precious. I am lucky enough to have ninety minutes per class everyday. That is enough time to invest 15-20 minutes to questioning and still leaves an ample amount time for instruction. I realize many do not have that luxury in the classroom and must really prioritize what they do with their time.

So, here are three criteria I consider when constructing retrieval practice opportunities for my students:

  1. Material that is critical for seeing the big picture.

Any information that is core to the major concepts in the class or particular unit we are studying are usually the first items I want to assess with my students. If they don’t understand these crucial elements, it will be much more difficult for them to incorporate and understand other material. It is vital students encounter this material during reviews to provide several opportunities for retrieval. 

  1. Material that relates to today’s lesson.

If there’s information today that continues a thread of thought or really relates well to material covered at an earlier date, I love including it on these informal assessments. Not only does it capitalize on spaced practice of the older material, it is a great starting point for discussion in the class. Having students chat about commonalities between two ideas or how this event led to the next can be a very worthwhile activity. You know as well as I that students tend to see content as compartmentalized and fractured; if it’s a new chapter, they see it as completely different. Sometimes that is true, but often there’s some line of continuity that can be discovered and utilized in the classroom. 

  1. Material that is commonly confused.

I know in my classroom there are many terms and concepts that may be confusing for students to remember correctly. For instance, with respect to interference and remembering, there’s proactive interference and retroactive interference. Proactive interference occurs when old memories disrupt the retrieval of new memories. For example, when students move to a new grade in middle/high school, they may receive a new locker with a new combination. At the start of the new year, students will probably struggle to recall their new combination from memory but be able to recall their old combination. Retroactive interference occurs when new memories disrupt the retrieval of old memories. After a few months of school, students will more likely be able to recall their new locker combination from memory, but struggle to retrieve last year’s locker combination. I know students struggle to correctly remember these terms, so I know I want to make sure we discuss them and students have multiple opportunities to retrieve this material.

Two important points when including these commonly confusing terms/concepts on low-stakes assessment opportunities: 

  1. Make sure there is very clear and organized feedback of the correct answers. Since this information is already somewhat susceptible to being incorrectly remembered, students need a crystal clear explanation. 
  2. I also like to revisit this information later in the lesson. When possible, I will begin and end class with retrieval of this confusing information. I don’t want to wait too long to provide my students with another opportunity to correctly retrieve this information. 

I hope this helps with narrowing down what information to consider when developing opportunities for retrieval in the classroom or at home. Retrieval practice is definitely an important part of the learning process that warrants our students’ time and effort. But, in the classroom, there needs to be a balance between instruction and assessment opportunities. Too much of either and inefficiencies begin to creep in, hindering the effectiveness of both.

What criteria do you use for deciding what information to include on retrieval opportunities?
What have I missed? Please feel free to leave a comment or write a rebuttal.

Photo by Shubham Sharan on Unsplash

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